Last fall, the City Council introduced an Ordinance to amend Title 15 of the Mill Valley Municipal Code regarding vegetation around residential and commercial buildings located within City Limits in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Area. This spring, Council held a Community Meeting to further introduce the new ordinance, which will require structures in the WUI Fire Area to have adequate defensible space, based on the careful selection, placement, and maintenance of vegetation near each structure.
The following information addresses some Frequently Asked Questions.
What is currently required?
Mill Valley has existing vegetation management and fire codes throughout the City, with enforcement focused in the area of town known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) - areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire. Mostly, the rules currently on the books require the thinning and removal of vegetation to create a defensible space and the “limbing up” of trees to remove “ladder fuels” that move ground fires into the tree crowns. The City of Mill Valley Fire Department has conducted vegetation inspections every spring/summer for over three decades.
In addition, the City has had established WUI requirements for new home construction since 2013. In April, 2018, the City Council adopted an Ordinance to require WUI upgrades and home “hardening” to home remodel and repair projects as well.
Why change the regulations?
Given the shift in the fire environment towards more violent and volatile conflagrations, we need to modify our mindset towards developing survivable space vs. defensible space. Survivable space is the modification of landscape design, fuels, and building materials that would make a home ignition caused by wildfire less likely and occur without direct firefighter intervention.
Video: How Fire Moves (3:16 min)
What are the new proposed regulations?
To the long-standing vegetation management practices, we are proposing adding the following:
Distance from Building*
Property owners will be required to…
0 to 3 feet
Remove vegetation within 3 feet of homes to reduce the chance of flying embers to land at the base of your walls and begin a structure fire. Create hardscape (gravel, concrete, pavers, bare ground) or plant succulents.
3 to 30 feet
Remove certain very flammable trees and vegetation: acacia, bamboo, Italian cedar and juniper within 30’ of your home/building and 10 feet along property lines and driveways.
30 to 150 feet
Remove stressed, diseased, dead or dying trees and shrubs, thin and trim healthy trees and shrubs, and clear or substantially thin vegetation within 10' of the roadway, driveway and property line
150 feet to property line
Remove dead standing or fallen trees, logs, dead materials, and prune (limb up) trees.
* The size of each Zone depends on the slope of the ground around the building. Please use the Defensible Space Calculator to assess your property.
Do these regulations apply to all other structures on the property (decks, detached shed, garage, pool house, etc) or just the main house?
Yes. Measurements are taken from outside edge of the building's eaves and any attached or unattached structures, such as decks, sheds, garage, etc.
In Zone 1A, can I use mulch or bark to cover the ground?
Mulch is flammable and it, along with flammable plants, leaves and needles, must be removed up to 3 feet from all exterior home walls and structures (like a porch or deck).
What can I plant in Zone 1A?
Hardscape is preferred, but well irrigated succulent plantings are allowed.
Why do I need to remove Juniper, Bamboo, Acacia and Italian Cypress in Zone 1?
These plants are categorized as “pyrophytic combustible” or “fire-prone plants,” which means that they ignite readily and burn intensely. Juniper is called the “gasoline plant” by firefighters because it has the same ingredient in it as turpentine. It is also called an “ember catcher” because the vegetation is so dense, it cradles embers until they ignite the plant. Juniper also drops easily ignitable dead leaves and debris underneath it.
What can I plant in Zone 1?
Zone 1 (the Lean, Clean and Green Zone) - is the 30’ area around your home that can benefit the most from a well-maintained landscape featuring appropriate spacing and fire-resistant plantings. What does this look like? Shrubs and trees maintained with adequate space between them, low groundcover, and “limbed up” trees with branches cut back 10’ from the roofline and chimney.
“You can have a beautiful, lush, green landscape around your home even if you live in some of the high fire danger areas,” Todd Lando of FIREsafe Marin said, at our recent Fire Prevention and Preparedness Community Meeting.
The FIREsafe Marin website offers a listing of suggested fire-resistant plantings for this zone. Also, we encourage you to visit the Fire Department’s Fire Safety Demonstration Garden on Hamilton between the Public Safety Building and the new Community Garden. The site includes a number of fire-resistant, drought tolerant and deer-resistive plants, as well as different types of mulches.
Where can I see an example of Mill Valley neighborhoods that have begun some of these fuel reduction strategies?
The Magee FireWise neighborhood in Blithedale Canyon is a good place to visit to see what a neighborhood looks like after some concerted vegetation work. It remains a wooded forest and very attractive, but the vegetation they removed will slow the spread of fire and reduce the intensity of a fire that may occur, all contributing to a greater probability that the homes will survive a wildfire, which is our main goal.
Will you provide a list of approved contractors for vegetation removal and landscaping? How does a contractor get on the list?
Yes. FIRESafe MARIN provides a listing of local green industry and building service providers and contractors who meet basic qualifications and have undergone training to provide wildfire hazard reduction services to Marin residents.
FIRESafe MARIN will add companies to the list when a company representative attends a basic training seminar hosted by FIRESafe MARIN or successfully completes a wildfire hazard reduction project.
What about other plants such as Eucalyptus, Scotch Broom, Pine and California Bay trees? Why are they not listed in the ordinance?
These plants and trees, and many others, are listed on the FIRESafe MARIN “Fire Prone Plants” list. Although not specifically identified in the new ordinance, they should also be removed if community members have the ability to do so. The new ordinance strategically identifies the top, most dangerous plants in our community (Juniper, Bamboo, Acacia, and Italian Cypress) as a starting point. In the future, Fire Department staff may recommend updating the ordinance again to include additional species of plants.
What about Heritage Trees?
Mill Valley defines a Heritage Tree as trees of the species tanbark oak, oak, madrone, and coast redwood which meet certain size criteria. It is required to obtain a permit for the removal of a Heritage Tree. The current tree ordinance gives City staff discretion for special circumstances, such as a Heritage Tree needing to be removed for safety purposes.
For additional information, please see the City’s current requirements here.
My property shares a boundary with another agency (County of Marin, MMWD, Corte Madera) – How do these new rules apply to vegetation that is on their property, but within the 30’ from my home?
The Mill Valley Fire Department works closely with land owners from adjacent agencies to remove and reduce vegetation near City of Mill Valley residential properties. A consistent effort across jurisdictions is the way to address fire safety, and the coordination among the cities and the County is under way by the Fire Departments across the County.
Marin County Fire just recently announced an updated wildfire prevention plan that includes a proposal to hire a second wildland fire crew tasked with clearing hazards from county parks and open space. The team would be funded by the Marin County Parks Measure A fund.
How will the new ordinance be enforced?
If invited, Fire Department representatives will be able to come onto private property to assess the vegetation management and offer suggestions on home hardening improvements. MVFD personnel will make sure that, among other things, trees on your property are limbed up, grasses near your home are cut short and debris is cleared from your roof, gutters and eves. The City uses an inspection formula that produces a weed abatement score, giving homeowners a number to associate with the severity of the fire-prone vegetation around their house.
All properties in the WUI Fire Area will be subject to the new regulations, regardless of who currently resides in the property. We will reach out to the property owner, who is ultimately responsible for the vegetation on the property.
These enhanced vegetation management regulations constitute a wise and aggressive program which will improve the odds of limiting potential destruction among our structures during a catastrophic fire. In the upcoming year, we plan to conduct approximately 5,000 parcel inspections. We have brought on additional staffing to focus on public education/outreach and inspection/compliance. The program will consist of both incentives, such as grants and City-sponsored services, and deterrents to non-compliance such as citations, fines and liens.
Is the City working with PG&E to assess risk of powerlines and transformers in and around Mill Valley?
PG&E is performing accelerated safety inspections of electric infrastructure in areas of higher wildfire risk. This work is being performed as part of PG&E’s Community Wildfire Safety Program, and is in addition to the company’s routine inspections and maintenance programs that are done in accordance with state and federal regulatory requirements.
Significant portions of Mill Valley lie within areas at elevated (Tier 2) and extreme (Tier 3) risk for wildfire based on the California Public Utilities Commission’s High Fire-Threat District map. Last summer, PG&E began replacing power lines throughout Mill Valley with stronger, covered power lines that are more resilient to extreme weather and can help further reduce potential wildfire risks. PG&E also completed significant vegetation management work throughout Mill Valley and will continue these efforts throughout the year.
Where will the funding for implementing the new ordinance come from?
Funding for the Fire Prevention & Vegetation Management Program, approximately $300,000 per year, comes from the Municipal Service Tax. Key activities of this program include preventing wildfires by removing brush and vegetation, creating fire breaks, and improving emergency vehicle access. Given the changing fire environment, the City Council has increased the vegetation management budget for a total of $1,000,000 over 2018/20 two-year budget cycle. Since July 1, 2018, staff has focused on increased community chipper programs and hazardous tree removal on City-owned properties.
The Vegetation Management Program removes around 300 tons of fire fuel from Mill Valley every year. Along with vegetation removal, the program also offers home inspections, an app to calculate your defensible space, a demonstration garden, and an accreditation program for neighborhoods.
Is the County of Marin (Unincorporated Mill Valley) going to pass similar vegetation management regulations? Who can I contact to find out more?
There is an interest in ensuring and developing consistent application of defensible space codes and enforcement across all fire agencies. Please click here to learn more.
When will the City Council meet to consider and vote on these new proposed regulations?
The ordinance had its “first reading” on September 6, 2018. It is scheduled to return to the City Council for consideration on June 17, 2019, after substantial outreach. The meeting will take place at Mill Valley City Hall, 26 Corte Madera. Avenue, Mill Valley.
Mill Valley Fire Department, 1 Hamilton Drive, Mill Valley CA 94941
Non-Emergency Phone: (415) 389-4130
Emergency Phone: 911